In a season of electrifying starts by some of the game's top offensive players, it's been the goaltending of Pekka Rinne that has made the biggest difference for any team in the NHL.
There are goaltenders with better numbers through the first quarter of season -- superior goals-against average and save percentage, more wins and shutouts -- but Rinne's performance for the Nashville Predators through 12 games is worthy of the Hart Trophy with 25 percent of the schedule complete.
It's not as if Rinne hasn't been dominant in his own right. He's fourth among starting goalies in GAA (1.92) and fifth in save percentage (.929) and has one shutout, but no goaltender this season has operated with a thinner margin of error or had as big an impact on his team's fortunes.
In 10 games Rinne has allowed 20 goals, yet is just 4-3-3 as the Predators offense has been downright anemic. Nashville has 22 goals in 12 games overall, and just 18 goals in Rinne's 10 starts.
Despite getting an average of 1.8 goals of support (and zero goals in three games already), Rinne has almost single-handedly earned the Predators 11 of 20 points in his starts. Rinne has been the difference between the Predators sitting sixth in the Western Conference through Sunday's games and sinking to the bottom of the standings.
Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings -- The 32-year-old has taken on more of the leadership responsibilities with the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom and has lifted the Red Wings. He has 18 points in 12 games while playing regular minutes on the penalty kill. Zetterberg is playing about 21 minutes per game and scoring at a career-high pace. He continues to prove that he is one of the game's best two-way players.
Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres -- It's common thinking to exclude an individual from Hart talk if he plays for a non-playoff team. The Sabres are 12th in the East -- one point out of eighth -- but would very likely be in 15th if not for Vanek. He has put his team on his back twice with a pair of five-point games and erased a two-goal deficit with a pair of third-period goals -- the second with 1.9 seconds remaining -- to help beat Montreal. Vanek has kept the Sabres afloat through 12 games.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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